Archive for the ‘Outside Tokyo’ Category
Beijing is home to most of the sights Westerners associate with China. For your edutainment here is a list of the top ten attractions in Beijing. Five will be listed this week and another five will follow next week.
1. The Great Wall of China.
It’s a wall. And it’s great. Certainly, it’s a lot better than the eponymous “Great Wall Wine” with its exotic overtones of vinegar and just an alluring hint of cat’s urine.
I’ve visited the Great Wall twice in Beijing. On the first visit I was a simple tourist. New to China and lacking confidence, I decided to take a bus to the tacky and touristy Badaling section of the wall.
While this was impressive enough for a tourist visit, later, as a fully fledged resident of China, I was determined to have a more authentic great wall experience. So, rather than rely on touristy buses, we elected to hire a taxi for the day.
I had confidence in my navigational abilities. I had fluency in my Chinese speaking. I had determination in my ability to negotiate an acceptable price. I also had a Chinese girlfriend to do all the work.
After a long morning of driving the taxi deposited us at the tacky and touristy Badaling section of the wall due to a misunderstanding in communication. I remain convinced that the great wall is in fact only 500 metres long and that the ancient Chinese just put up signs leading the Mongols in circles until they were too dizzy to realize it was the same damn place.
2. The Summer Palace
I’ve never actually been to Beijing in summer. That being said, I have been to the Summer Palace, albeit in winter. To be perfectly honest, there’s not a lot of palace here. What there is, is a ruddy great lake, which happened to be frozen over on my visit and about 30 square km of parks. Now, 30 square km of parks must be lovely in a summer palace, but seeing as I went in winter and the temperature was minus 13, I hastily retreated back to our hostel to check which extraneous appendages were still attached. It is my understanding that many of the locals visit the park after uttering the words, “I’m going out for a walk, I may be some time”.
3. Mao’s Mausoleum
The attraction here of course is to see the great man himself in all his formaldehydatory glory. I’ve often wondered at the communist obsession with stuffing their leaders full of straw and sticking them
in a Perspex box for future generations to ogle. I’ve often thought t would be amusing to arrange the leaders in one room and stick instruments into their hands to make a pseudo Beatles band. Of course Lenin would be lead guitar…
Mao looks like an older, waxier version of his portrait over the Forbidden City. At least that’s what I thought in the 3 ½ seconds I was allocated to look at him.
4. The Forbidden City
The first rule of the Forbidden City is that you do not talk about the Forbidden City.
Well it’s not that forbidden anymore to be perfectly honest. Some of the allure and mystique were eradicated on my first visit when I encountered a Starbucks in one of the buildings.
The entry price to the Forbidden City is steep at around 60 yuan, but still a lot cheaper than 100 years ago when it cost a pair of testicles.
Once inside, the Forbidden City is mostly empty courtyards interspersed with a few buildings. Each of the buildings has a monumental history and countless stories, all of which I remain ignorant of because I was too stingy to pay for a guide.
5. Tianenmen square
Famous as the place where a Chinese student waved to an oncoming ice-cream van in the 1989 peaceful lolipop parade and panda bear festival. In no way has history been glossed over here, and the government will be happy to provide you with many happy years reading my bl..
Ladies and gentlemen, the Cynical Traveller is back. Yes, after a hideously aborted attempt at resurrecting my site in Japan, I have now secured a job in China. For the next two years, I will be living in Ningbo, a tiny hamlet with a population barely scraping 7 million. Hopefully this should provide plenty opportunities for cynical observations.
Over the course of my writing in Japan, I was often at pains to iterate that the stories weren’t a real indication of my feelings, but rather an attempt at humour. Despite this, I received several comments, particularly regarding Harajuku, decrying what a sad individual I was and how my opinions were worthless.
Accurate though these assessments were, I’d now like to reiterate the original point, as any offence I cause is less likely to earn me two days of nasty comments, than it is to earn me two years in a forced labour camp.
Shortly after arriving, one of my friends in Australia asked me what the main differences were between Japan and China. After taking several minutes to recover from such a staggering question I set my mind to wondering.
If I can plagiarise a line from Blackadder, Japan and China are about as similar as two completely dissimilar things in a pod.
Obviously, there are many things about China and Japan which are very similar.
In Japan and China, you can see the same architectural style. In Japan and China, you can see the same character based writing system. In Japan and China, you can see the same predilection for cute cartoon characters.
However, in Japan you won’t see a man riding a moped down a main street wearing only his underpants.
You won’t see women visiting the supermarket in their pyjamas.
You won’t see whole families sleeping on a road’s medium strip because it’s cooler than their houses.
You won’t see a little kid take a shit on the sidewalk.
And quite frankly; that is Japan’s loss!
The Cynical Traveller
(Nothing but random pics this week [except the last pic]. Sorry.)
One of the things I’ve found with holidays is that no matter how much time I’m allotted, I always have 20% too much time. This happens whether I have 2 weeks or 2 years of holidays.
And so it was, with 3 days remaining of our holiday, that we were ready to return home, which of course meant returning to Yangon. After our adventure on the train, we decided to fly back, despite the rather appalling safety record of the Myanmar airlines.
The taxi ride to the airport was memorable. I noticed that the taxi we were in actually had a radio, one of the few that hadn’t been ripped out in the whole of Myanmar. I remarked upon this to the driver, who was so proud that he showed us how well it worked. Myanmar music is basically stolen tunes from western music and dubbed over with Myanmar singers. After 15 minutes of screechy “Time after time”, the driver obviously noticed our pained expressions and informed us that he had an English tape.
Unfortunately, this mysterious English tape turned out to be Aqua; a whole Aqua album. Obviously some tourist had bought it in a drunken stupor in 1997 and had been trying to offload it on some unsuspecting local ever since.
The airport arrived none too soon. The single proviso my sister, who hates flying, put upon this trip was that it had to be a direct flight. The woman who booked the flight for us assured us it was direct. However, upon arriving at the airport, we learned that the flight was being directed to Myanmar’s new capital, a government city built in the middle of nowhere, so Tang Shwe could avoid assassination attempts. We were being redirected to pick up some VIPs. My sister was so upset by this that I didn’t have the heart to show our airplane, which was a very small, dodgy looking propeller driven craft, or to point out the hulk of an obviously crashed plane at the end of the runway.
Still, we made it to Yangon okay, to find out that it had been raining for three days straight. And it continued to rain for tree days straight after we arrived. The problem with this is that the drainage system in Yangon doesn’t really work. The full extent of this problem became apparent on our last day.
We had been invited to a party at the American embassy. Taking a taxi in was a joy in the pouring rain, especially as the roof had peeled back above where I was sitting. However, at 3am, after a heavy night of beer and tequila, there were no taxis to be had and the only available transport was with Christine’s Burmese friend, Christina.
Soaked and inebriated we got into the jeep with Christina. This turned out to be rather a large mistake. Not only was Christina only marginally more sober than we were, she was only a marginally better driver than a one legged albatross. With chronic myopia.
Not that it mattered anyway. By this time, there was so much water on the road that Michael Schumacher would have struggled. A boat would have been more suitable than our jeep, which aquaplaned from curb to curb like an oversized, rusty pinball.
Eventually, we decided that driving with Christina was too terrifying, even for our alcohol sodden minds, and we jumped out the back to walk. Except it wasn’t really walking. At this stage, the water in the middle of the road was up over our knees and on the sides it was closer to hip height.
I forged on down the middle of the road, while my sister and Christine set of on the banks. Of course, the main problem with all the water was that you couldn’t see under foot and my sister managed to fall down a hole that should covered by a concrete slab which had long since split in two. Fortunately, I was just in time… to turn around and laugh my arse off as her head disappeared under the water line. Christine did the same and promptly leapt over the drain…. to immediately disappear down the next drain.
At this stage I was in danger of drowning, as I was doubled over with laughter, my head perilously close to the water. However, my laughter was short lived when my sister revealed that she had lost one of her flip flops down the drain, and both girls forced e to put my hand in and try to find it, not a pleasant activity in the dark.
Unfortunately, the only thing I was able to find was an acute case of cholera. After what must have been close to an hour struggling through the water, a jeep pulled up next to us. It was Christina again. It turned out that in close to an hour, we had managed to walk around 100 metres. This time, we were willing to stay in the car for the entire journey despite the perils, figuring that it was slightly less perilous than walking.
Arriving at Christine’s, I peeled of my clothes and collapsed into bed. In the morning the full extent of the damage we had wreaked became apparent. Despite losing a shoe, we ended up all square in the clothing department, as Christine had stolen a t-shirt from the embassy. More searches revealed drink cards and a key to the toilets, where we had been taking pictures, as it was supposed to be forbidden to have a camera on the embassy grounds. So much for security!
That afternoon, hung over and tired, we boarded our flight back to Australia. I had two days at home to get ready for my return to Japan….
Next week, back to the Japan stories!
The reason we had come to Kalaw in the first place was that I was quite keen to do some trekking, and apparently Kalaw was the place to be for non-challenging, non-dangerous treks that never require you to leave your comfort zone. Perfection.
My ideal trek was a three day schlep from Kalaw to Inle lake, our next destination. However, my sister was adamant that she wouldn’t do it, as she was unsure of the state of the toilets on the way. Bearing in mind that at one point on our trek, our shoes were covered in leeches, she is obviously made of wiser stuff than me.
Our guide for the trek was a local man named Ted. Ted wore a bamboo pith helmet and had an infectious smile, a maniacal laugh and a propensity to tell enormous lies at every available opportunity.
Of course, we had sensibly decided to visit Myanmar in the middle of the rainy season. For a while we thought we had lucked out, as the day was clear and the temperature was comfortable. Unfortunately, we then left the graded roads of Kalaw and it all went pear shaped.
One of the dangers of hiking in the hills in the wet season, is that a nice sunny day doesn’t necessarily mean a nice easy trek. Soon after we set off we were to discover that one sunny day can’t repair the damage caused by three weeks of solid rain.
To say the terrain was muddy would be an understatement. I’m pretty sure there are little earthworm houses, whose owners would ask a Kalaw trekker to wipe their feet before entering. By the time we had walked approximately 100 metres, we were carrying roughly a third of Myanmar on each boot (maths was never my strong point).
Even a minor incline became a treacherous slip and slide. This was made all the more frustrating by the apparent ease with which Ted traversed the terrain. He seemed to be suspended by helium, as he lightly danced down slopes which for us had about the same amount of grip as Action Man after a delicate hand operation. In contrast, the soles of our shoes seemed as smooth as liberally greased baby’s bottom (I really hope I don’t get any search engine hits for that phrase).
Not that mud was the major obstacle. The villagers rode into town on oxen carts, and where there’s oxen, there’s…
The trek took in a couple of hill tribe villages, which are always nice to see and photograph. And, as Myanmar is not quite as widely visited as Thailand or Vietnam, they thankfully still had a lot to learn about selling useless handicrafts to stupid tourists.
The trek also took in an observation point, which we arrived at just in time for the clouds to roll over. Still, we got some nice views on the way up. One of the most charming things about Myanmar though, is that as you are walking around, small children come up to you and give you flowers for no particular reason. It is difficult to maintain your cynicism in the face of these displays, so I tried to ignore them as much as possible. My sister, however, soon turned into a walking bouquet.
The next day, we caught the bus to Inle lake, which, true to Myanmar protocol, left at an obscenely early time, had small, uncomfortable seats and was filled with 70 more passengers than it was designed to hold. However, in a radical break from tradition, it was actually 15 minutes early. Presumably the driver was hauled away somewhere to explain his actions.
The guesthouse at Inle was lovely teakwood home, with an unscrupulously mercenary owner who talked at a million miles an hour so you couldn’t understand a word she was charging. Before we knew it, she had us booked on a boat a massage and a plane ride back to Yangon, all within the space of a single breath.
The boatride on Inle lake was quite disappointing though, consisting of various factory tours and numerous opportunities to lighten your luggage by relinquishing some kyat. “Highlights” included a Paluang longneck tribe, who sang a short song remeniscent of the sound my car makes when its fan belt becomes too wet, and a cigar factory where 10 year old girls rolled cheroots for 15 hours a day.
There was also a jumping cat monastery, however by the time we arrived the cats were drinking Gatorade and doing their warm down stretches after a hard day of leaping for tourist.
Inle did however have the best Pizza place we encountered in the whole of Myanmar, with a charming owner and décor from the post concrete minimalist school.
The gastronomic delights of pizza aside, it was time to go back to Yangon.
Bagan is Myanmar’s version of Ankor Wat; not quite as grand, not quite as famous, and not quite as popular. It’s kind of the travel equivalent of Christina Aguleira.
The boat to Bagan however, was probably the most civilized transportation we took on our entire journey through Myanmar, which is frustrating as the damn government owns the thing.
The first thing you notice about Bagan is the heat. Despite the fact that it was the rainy season, Bagan was 40 degrees and dry when we arrived. The second thing you notice is that there are tourists there. After five days in the rest of Myanmar, we had seen a sum total of around ten tourists but on our boat there were 40 or 50 all in one hit. It kind of bursts your little bubble of exclusivity. The next thing you notice is the enormous crowd of hawkers on the docks, mostly children, drawn to the tourists like polar bears to a penguin party. The next thing you’ll notice is that the bloody government charges you 10 dollars to get off the boat.
There are more than 100 temples in Bagan; a similar number to Ankor Wat, but they are far more spaced out. A bit like some of the travellers there really. We decided to see them by bicycle rather than the favoured method of horse and cart, and after about three temples I realized we had made the right decision. The heat and tired legs were a small price to pay to avoid the mobs of hawkers that appeared from nowhere whenever you heard the sound of a cart approaching.
For some reason, my sister had firmly decided that, after a week of noodles, the one food she really craved was pasta or pizza. The Lonely Planet guide to Bagan states that “There are two types of food in Nyuang U: Pizza and non-pizza”. While we found the latter in ample supply, the former was strangely lacking. Indeed, we visited two separate restaurants with large signs out front saying “Italian Food”, only to find that they didn’t have any when we entered. Finally, in desperation, we chose a quite swish looking place closer to old Bagan in the hopes of a tourist menu. Unfortunately, the restaurant appeared strangely deserted and 5 minutes later, the owner approached us to tell us that their chef had gone off to help in the village, which has apparently caught fire. So, noodles it was.
The next day, we took on a three hour taxi ride with some Germans to a temple called the Popa Pagoda. After paying a substantial amount for the taxi, and riding with Germans, the payoff was sadly a little pathetic. Pictures of the pagoda make it look like a majestic castle perched on top a ragged crag. The reality is that it’s not much more than a few run down buildings, a bunch of monkeys, shops selling tourist junk and magic cure-all stones and a bunch of fat sweaty Europeans from a coach tour.
I was so disappointed that I composed a little song, to be sung to the tune of Copacobana:
At the Popa
There’s nothing to see, just a load a
Monkeys and hawkers
And fat Spanish gawkers
At the Popaaaaaaa
The bus for Kalaw left at 3.30 the next morning. There’s not much to say about the trip. It was ten hours long, but apparently only 180km. My seat had no padding, the seat in front of me was too close to fit my legs behind and the aisles were filled with plastic seats. The road itself was slightly less smooth than the face of a 14 year old chocoholic.
Arriving in Kalaw, we were greeted by a rather insane Australian man (apologies for the tautology) who rushed up to the bus as it stopped for fuel, 500 metres from its final destination. His name was Percy and he appeared to be his mid to late 70s. He had come to Myanmar on the advice of a Burmese friend he worked with and ended up marrying his sister (that is, the Burmese man’s sister, not his own sister [although I wouldn’t have put it past him]) and staying for 20 years in Kalaw. Starved of opportunities to speak to Westerners, Percy charged at the bus every day and accosted every tourist, hoping for conversation. He was delighted when it turned out that we were from Australia as well, and he invited us to his home for dinner.
We decided, with some trepidation, to take Percy up on his offer. We arrived at his $2500 house in time to see the start of an Australian football final. Fortunately, the weird sensation of watching an Australian sport in the middle of Myanmar wasn’t to last long, as ten minutes in, the power went out in the whole of Kalaw.
Dinner at Percy’s was a rather informal affair; at least judging from Percy’s attire anyway. In the style of over 70s everywhere, Percy had decided to dress in a pair of sky blue shorts that had been pulled up to somewhere just below his nipples. He was charmingly misogynistic, relying on his wife to do pretty much everything, from cooking and waiting, right through to changing the TV stations for him. He referred to her as “Luv” or “Darl”, using the kinds of expressions that haven’t been heard outside of the soap opera, Neighbours, for 45 years. Despite this, he was an interesting person to talk to and surprisingly knowledgeable about the workings of Myanmar society.
Percy was particularly keen for us to take a look through his photo albums, but once we discovered a photo of him and his wife in lingerie on their honeymoon, the rest of the photos were skipped through at great speed.
That night, we opted for a massage to knead away the stresses of the bus ride. Kalaw had one massage practitioner and his apprentice. He was around 70 years old and referred to himself in the third person as “Massage Master”.
He also told us about his rather turbulent life. Apparently he grew up on the border with Thailand, a particularly troublesome spot in Myanmar. He recounted a story of when soldiers came to his village. They had set fire to a large portion of the village and he was particularly worried about his sister and her son. Eventually someone found her son and rescued him from a building, but they were still unable to locate his sister. Days later they found her. She had been raped by a group of soldiers and had taken her own life.
There were tears in his eyes as he related this story and it was difficult to know how to respond. It was a poignant reminder that while we were enjoying the country, the hospitality and friendliness of the people there, it is impossible to know what they have suffered. I had never felt more like a tourist in my life.
After the stresses of Yangon and the 15 hour train trip, Mandalay seemed such a pleasant place to be. There’s not a lot to do there really, but at least you don’t kill yourself trying to do it.
Our leisurely itinerary of two days in Mandalay involved hiring a couple of rickshaw drivers to pedal us around on the first day. There’s certainly no shortage of these around, and we were able to hire a couple inside the palace compound to take us to a temple area on the local map for 1000 kyat each. Rather embarrassingly, it turned out that we slightly misunderstood the map scale and ended up paying them the equivalent of 80 cents to ride us about 10km.
Now, I’m not exactly svelt and the sight of some poor Burmese man struggling towards an acute coronary as he tried to pedal my ample frame up a hill, is literally the only thing guaranteed to guilt me into opening my legendarily tight purse strings. Therefore, when the guys offered to ride us around for the rest of the day, we readily agreed. We settled on a price of 5,000 kyat for 5 temples that were marked on our map.
One of the unwritten laws of haggling in Asia is if, when you name a price, the other person immediately says deal, you know you’ve made a mistake. If the say it with a slight smile, you’ve really made a big mistake. So, when our guys started to dance around and hug each other, letting off fireworks, my suspicions were slightly raised.
It turned out that all 5 temples were within about 30 metres of where they had just taken us and that we had effectively paid 5 times our original price for them to lounge around on their bikes. Still, you gotta give something back….
The temples were nice, without being anything too spectacular. Probably the highlight for me was two young girls who were incredibly keen to sell us some ink paintings (which we had seen at numerous other attractions). They followed us around the pagoda saying “You buy, we happy” with big, infectious grins and cheeky laughs. We decided that as we weren’t going to buy anything from them, we would give them a couple of crappy clip on Koalas that I had bought in Australia (admittedly for probably 5 times what the girls would have been willing to accept for their pictures). Then, as we were leaving, without a word of a lie, the cheeky little buggers tried to sell the koalas to us!
That night we went and watched a marionette show. The theatre was a charming little place, run by an old man who didn’t look strong enough to lift a puppet, let alone perform with one. In fact, if I’m being honest, the puppets actually looked stronger than he did. If he was working on Thunderbirds, the world would have been destroyed before the Traceys even made it out of the pool.
The next day, we had arranged with the driver of our torch lit bemo to take us to some of the sights outside of Mandalay (and preferably return before nightfall). The most impressive of these sights was a monastery where 300 monks line up simultaneously for lunch.
It was quite imposing and well worth seeing. Unfortunately, the whole mystic essence was ruined by a Spanish tourist who actually got in line with the monks and followed them with his video camera. And they say tourists don’t respect other cultures!
We also had lunch in a local, and I do mean local, restaurant. For approximately 6,000 kyat, we received approximately 80 dishes of approximately 7cm diametre, filled with, approximately, food.
The food was a heady mixture of the delicious and the suspicious. For every bowl of succulent chicken curry, there was another, containing beef lard soaked in toxic waste and baby vomit. Still, well worth the experience and the possible chronic bowel complaints later in life.
That night, we went for a swim in the hotel pool and got chatting to a couple of local fellows who invited us out for dinner. Our plan that night had been to go and see the moustache brothers, a political comedy troupe who are famous for standing up to the government (I have since heard that Par Par Lay has be arrested again). However, we agreed to have dinner with the family from the pool, thinking we could make it later. Halfway through our noodles, the boy casually announced that Than Shwe was his grandfather through marriage. This was basically akin to sitting down to dinner with a man who says, “Oh, and by the way, my uncle is Idi Amin”. After that gem, it seemed somewhat inadvisable to tell them we were off to an anti-government production. So, we succinctly bid them good evening and slipped out to try and find a taxi.
Unfortunately, due to the wonders of Myanmar technical expertise, Mandalay has no streetlights at night, and we were unable to find a taxi. So we missed the show, possibly the only thing my sister really wanted to do in Mandalay. We couldn’t stay though; we already had a boat booked for Bagan the next morning.
Next week – Bagan and Kalaw
The train to Mandalay sounds like such an evocative thing. It conjures up images of empire; men in linen safari suits sipping martinis on their way to a colonial British capital for a spot of tea and buggery. For those of you who have these romantic notions of train travel, perhaps following in the footsteps of Kipling and Theroux, can I recommend the train to Mandalay. It will cure you of any such notions for a long time.
I’m not sure why I consistently labour under the misapprehension that rail travel will be romantic. I must have taken 7 or 8 train trips of over 10 hours duration in my life. Every time I think it will be some sort of fabulous orient express, with little men in neat pressed brown uniforms and pristine white gloves bringing fresh flowers and a newspaper to my clean cabin as I relax on a comfortable bunk. In reality, the whitest thing on this train was my sister’s face after seeing the state of the toilets, and the brownest thing was her underpants four hours after the same. I have pretty much hated every one of these trips.
The Mandalay train was a good example of what to expect from travel in the third world. In a masterful stroke of genius, the government decided to run two trains a day from Yangon to Mandalay. The first of these leaves, rather ridiculously, at 5am. Luckily the second train left at a far more civilized 5.30am. Incidentally, this was a peculiarity we were to experience throughout our travels in Myanmar.
We boarded the train in darkness. Total darkness, There were no lights in the station and no lights in the train. We were told where to sit by an attendant carrying a torch, but had no real idea whether they were actually our seats or not. We also disembarked in total darkness. For this reason, I have no photos of the actual trip and have instead decided to intersperse the story with pictures of other forms of Burmese transport I would rather take and their benefits over the train.
The train trip was supposed to be 14 hours, but in the end it actually took us around 18. There were no lights, no air conditioning, the train wobbled like a fat man on a mechanical bull and it periodically stopped at random intervals in order to let more mosquitoes on board. In a piece of brilliant planning, only the top of the windows opened, so it was in fact impossible to get a fresh breeze on your face. Then, to cap it all off, for the duration of the journey we were sat in front of a man who burped at precisely three minute intervals.
When he first did this, I had a bit of a chuckle and thought humorously about how social norms differ when you travel. However, after 7 hours it had stopped being funny and moved into the territory of downright disgusting. Fortunately, as a distraction we had a man opposite who was obviously suffering from an acute case of tuberculosis, and I’ll take belching over infectious lung diseases any day.
With my headphones broken, there was little else to do on the train except look out the window and watch the world go by. Unfortunately, this is when you realise just how slow the train is going, as the rest of the world seems to be going by in the wrong direction.
The biggest problem with the duration of the trip however, is that none of the stations are signed in English. This means that you have no idea where you have arrived at. Now, if the train was nanosecond perfect like the ones in Japan, this wouldn’t be too much of a problem. However, when the train is 4 hours late and arrives in darkness, it makes disembarking a little more difficult. When we arrived at a station, we had no idea what it was. It could have been Mandalay or Mingalar or, for all we knew, Madagascar.
When we finally arrived in Mandalay, hot, sweaty and probably carrying some ghastly communicable diseases, a little tout jumped on the train and asked if we wanted a taxi. We were too tired to resist and soon found ourselves in the back of a dinky, blue Mazda pickup. We were so looking forward to arriving at our hotel that we were halfway through the trip before we noticed that the car didn’t have any lights and the passenger was simply leaning out the window and shining a torch down the road.
We arrived at our hotel and settled into bed. That night I decided that we would be flying back to Yangon at the end of the trip. And that would prove to provide a whole different story in itself…..
Next week… Mandalay and Bagan
The New Light of Myanmar newspaper – 22 September, 2007
Yangon international airport is the first international flight I’ve ever taken where you actually have to dismount onto the tarmac. After disembarking, you wait 12 minutes for a bus to arrive, 5 minutes for it to fill up and then you drive the 20 metres to the terminal where you wait another 15 minutes for the luggage that was sitting next to you on the tarmac to arrive.
It became apparent very soon after our arrival in Myanmar that the people’s desire is not shared by all the people. In fact, our taxi driver from the airport was very happy to tell us about the relative merits of his government. Apparently they don’t have any. He was quite happy to tell us this as well, despite the fact that we were obviously external elements acting as stooges.
The driver also informed us that his taxi was worth $30,000 US. Looking around at the velour roof, the stripped doors and the holes in the floor or his 1973 Datsun Sunny, it is probably fair to surmise that we were a little skeptical of his claims. However, it turned out to be perfectly true. Apparently the government doesn’t let people import cars. So, what automobiles there are in the country are worth their weight in…. well, car.
We had agreed to meet my friend Christine at her place of work, the Myanmar Times, where we would change money, drop off our luggage and then go out for dinner. We had been warned not to change money at the airport, where the exchange rate is literally 1/3 what it is in the rest of the country.
At her work we changed $350 US. The greatest thing about Myanmar is the currency. It’s called the Kyat (pronounced “chat”) and at the time we visited, $1 US was worth around 1350 kyat. However, the best thing about the kyat is that the highest banknote issued in the whole country is 1000 kyat. This meant that upon changing $350 US, we had a wad of cash large enough to crush a small kitten. There is a government regulation that states that you aren’t allowed to take kyat out of the country upon your exit. While many people believe this is to prevent the expense of printing more notes, the real reason is far simpler. Even taking a small amount of US dollars in kyat would probably prevent the plane from taking off.
Arriving back at my friend’s house, we discovered it was a two story colonial mansion, however she was quick to dismiss it as ordinary. Apparently some of her friends’ houses had swimming pools and tennis courts, spas, satellite dishes, moats and drawbridges etc.
So, we retired to bed and watched the lights flicker and dim, because even in Yangon they can’t maintain a steady supply of electricity, which is probably still regarded as witchcraft in certain parts of the country.
That night, the worst fate that can befall any traveller in Asia happened to me. One of my headphones stopped working! Those who think that this sounds a fairly mild occurrence have obviously never travelled for a long period of time.
Driving into town the next day, we saw an example of Myanmar ingenuity in a few people fixing the wall on the 8th floor of a building. Rather than scaffolding or one of those funky window washer things, they had simply pushed a board out the window. Two people were sitting on one end and the man fixing the roofs was standing on the other. Occupational health and safety officials would probably have a heart attack if they saw it. In fact, occupational health and safety officials would probably ban themselves from looking at it in case they had a heart attack.
Rangoon contains three worthwhile place of interest: Shwedagong pagoda, Inye lake and Scott market. Unfortunately, it is difficult to visit Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, as government spies take down the license plates of taxis that go there and the drivers get hauled in for questioning. Those of you who read my story about traveling to Thailand with my sister will realize that the one thing I would enjoy less than interrogation by a Burmese official, is visiting another market with my sister. This left two viable attractions.
Shwedagong pagoda is probably the most famous landmark in Yangon, and well worth the extra markup you pay as a foreigner to enter. We were shown around the pagoda by a chirpy little monk, who was happy to do for free what a tour guide was going to charge us $10 each for.
We also tried to book a train ticket for Mandalay. However the man a the train station didn’t speak any English, and after about 20 minutes of saying “Mandalay” in a loud voice and making train gestures with “Choo choo” noises, he eventually passed us off to one of the touts lounging out the front, who also spoke no English.
The tout immediately led us out of the train station and we walked after him. And walked. And walked. It soon became apparent that we were in fact walking the 600km to Mandalay (a fate which in hindsight may not have been so bad – see next week’s story).
Eventually we arrived at a completely different train station and spoke to a completely different man, who also didn’t speak English but presumable in a completely different way. Eventually we decided to give up and let our friend’s Burmese co-workers book the ticket for us the next day.
The next morning, we decided to visit Inye Lake. It was pretty, but nothing particularly special. It had some sort of large, golden barge which was probably pretty famous forsomething. Probably for being a large barge.
For me however, I’m afraid it shall ever be renamed “Lake Snog” because it is where all the young Burmese couples go to have a pash in private. They, rather modestly (but none too subtly), hold umbrellas in front of them to protect the privacy of their romantic trysts. It’s really rather sweet, and certainly more appealing than the romantic things that some girls do with umbrellas in neighbouring Thailand.
We were to meet my Christine for lunch, and then she would hook us up with some co-workers who’d buy our tickets for us. Stopping at a tea stand, which was one of her regular hangouts, I asked if I could take a photo of a kid eating his lunch. Christine was flabberghasted and asked why I would want to take a picture of him as he was such a freaky looking kid. However the parents agreed, but as soon as I pointed he camera at him, he burst into tears. Christine then said one of my favourite quotes of all time, “I reckon if you took a picture of that kid, he wouldn’t be in it anyway”
Going back to the station with two Burmese ladies, I was pleased to note that they had almost as much trouble booking our train tickets as we did. Still, we got there in the end and we were due to leave the next morning. We were on our way.
On our last night in Yangon, Christine told us about a group of monks who had protested about petrol prices in a remote village. Apparently the police had shot above their heads and they had run off so quickly that they left their flip-flops behind. We found the whole idea of a field of shoes with no people inexplicably hilarious. Little were we to know what it would lead to….
Next Week – The Train to Mandalay
Over the next few weeks, I will be writing about my recent trip to Myanmar (Burma) with my sister. This will give me a few weeks to compile some more stories in Japan. I would like to warn my readers that not all the stories will be funny, because not everything that happens in Burma is funny.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – Loa Tzu
Of course, what the cheeky bugger fails to mention is that after that single step, you still have 15,999,000 to go.
Our single step began with us deciding on where to go. My sister favoured Cambodia and I was leaning towards Myamnar. My resolve was heightened by the discovery that one of my friends from university was working at a newspaper in Myanmar. Despite the fact that I hadn’t seen this girl in over 12 years, I was more than willing to take advantage of the situation to score some free accommodation.
And so it was that we found ourselves in Adelaide airport, preparing to board a plane for a country that neither of us really knew anything about, one of the few situations where ignorance actually is bliss.
Despite Adelaide being the thriving metropolis that it is (and I assume most Australians are laughing at this point), the airport contains very little to do. Once you’ve read the warning signs about liquids, checked out where the three international flights are going this year and decided which passengers are married to their own sisters, it gets a little boring.
Fortunately, I decided to go to the toilet, where I spotted the gem of a sign featured last week. However, there were two doors leading into the urinals and the sign was on the inner door, presenting me with a problem.
There really is no easy way to walk into a public toilet with a camera and not look like a pervert. Especially, as the camera I was using at the time was a large SLR with a substantial zoom lens on it; hardly inconspicuous. I’m sure I did little to alleviate the suspicions of passers by, as whenever they happened past I would instinctively turn around and examine the phone box behind the toilets, or pretend to be examining my camera for scratches.
The only other incident of note during our time in Adelaide was to occur in customs. As we were only staying overnight in Singapore, we had decided to automatically transfer our luggage to the next flight and to take everything we needed for the night in day packs. Unfortunately, there are new laws saying that you can’t take more than 100ml of liquids onto the flight with you. Therefore, I was told that I couldn’t bring a 2 litre bottle of water through a security point, but I was quite welcome to empty it and then fill it up with water from the bathroom on the other side. Also, my sister had a tube of toothpaste confiscated because it was 110ml, instead of 100. And people wonder why I’m cynical.
There are no direct flights to Myanmar from Australia, so we were forced to overnight in Singapore. Now comparatively to Adelaide, Singapore airport is a veritable smorgasbord of activities. It’s kind of like the end result of a collision between Heathrow and Disneyland. The airport contains a free cinema, free internet, free x-box games, free massage chairs and loads of other stuff. All of which is rather disappointing because once you actually leave the airport, Singapore itself has nothing to offer.
Were I to keep an actual diary of our adventures in Singapore, it would run something like this:
Got train from the airport . Got off at the wrong stop. Wandered past the river and harbour on our way to the hotel. Had a shower. Wandered back to the river and harbour. Wandered around the river and harbour. Wandered past the river and harbour on the way back to the hotel. Bought toothpaste. Went to bed.
I am fully aware that I may not be doing Singapore any justice here. For all I know, there could have been at fantastic parade of dancing three legged elephants being ridden by the A – Team right around the next corner. However, there are only so many corners you can walk around in a night and we were tired.
We did, however, manage to stop off for a cocktail in Raffles hotel. For those who know me, this is rather amazing, as I am usually harder to get money out of than a Nigerian spammer. On this one occasion, I splurged and spent the equivalent of $30 Australian on one small cocktail. To put this in context, that was enough to secure a week’s meals in Myanmar. However, it did come with a complimentary bowl of peanuts, so money well spent!
Next week – Rangoon
Well folks, ‘tis the season to be jolly. While the Japanese may not celebrate Christmas (at least not in the non-consumer way), they certainly take the opportunity to get jolly whenever it presents itself.
Yes, it’s the last few weeks before Christmas and New Year’s and that means the end of year staff party or bon enkai.
Anybody who’s lived in Japan for a significant length of time will know all about enkais. If you are down the local izakaya (the Japanese equivalent of a pub) and you see 30 men in suits falling over, vomiting and wearing women’s underwear on their head, chances are you’ve stumbled into one.
Firstly, the rules of the enkai
1. “What happens at the enkai, stays at the enkai.”
An example I was given, is that it is perfectly acceptable to tell your boss he’s an arsehole and then resume a normal working arrangement the next day. Needless to say, I wasn’t really willing to put this to the test.
2. Never fill your own glass, or allow another person’s glass to become empty.
This enables you to get as drunk as possible, without any of that responsible “knowing how much you’ve drunk” nonsense.
3. Talk to as many people as possible
Don’t worry if you can’t speak Japanese. By the end of the night most of the Japanese can’t either.
Let me run you through a typical school enkai.
4.00 – Try to find the restaurant on the map provided
6.00 – Arrive at the enkai. 90% of the teachers are still at school. Take a small random card to determine seating arrangements.
6.20 – Watch as the other teachers arrive and pick seats. Groan as the seat next to you is drawn by the teacher who hates gaijin and has said three words to you in 4 years.
6.25 – Start talking with the teacher next to him in front of his face just to piss him off.
6.30 – The teacher who organized the enkai thanks everyone for coming and introduces the principal who appears in a puff of smoke and saws a lady in half.
6.31 – The principal makes a speech thanking everyone for their hard work during the year. Fell guilty that he’s probably including you in “everyone” but really shouldn’t be.
6.33 – Realise you don’t speak Japanese.
6.35 – “Bloody hell. Is this speech ever going to end?”
6.38 – Speech finishes and teachers say “kanpai” (cheers). Clink glasses together, take a drink and then clap (presumably at the fact that you got it in your mouth without spilling any).
6.40 – First course arrives. Open your dish and realize that you have no idea what it is, or even what planet it came from. Just eat it anyway.
6.45 – Mingle with other teachers and fill their glasses. Have your glass filled by EVERYONE because they want to see what happens when the gaijin gets drunk.
6.45 – 9.00 – Get drunk and make a fool of yourself.
7.45 – “Hey, this Japanese isn’t as difficult as I thought. I must be pretty damn clever.”
9.00 – More speeches. The principal makes another speech and it concludes with everyone performing a special series of claps unique to our school. Rather like a noisier version of the freemason’s handshake.
9.30 – Soft-core teachers go home. The hardcore teachers announce the location of the second party, preferably somewhere involving karaoke.
9.32 – Realise that, while I’m having difficulty standing, I’m still not drunk enough to sing Karaoke and go home with the soft core teachers.
This is a guide to a normal enkai. Christmas enkais are almost the same, except everyone brings a small present and you draw one at random. Last year I got a ceramic rooster statue.
Today’s story is based on Shintoism, a subject about which I actually know bugger all. I’m not even close to being a theologian and my observations are based on information provided by Japanese friends on the day. Some of my interpretations may be way off.
Then again, even my knowledge of Christianity is based solely on repeated viewings of “Life of Brian” and the soundtrack to “Jesus Christ: Superstar”. So, if you want to write in and tell me that my synopsis of this Shinto festival is completely wrong, feel free.
Festivals are of course, a big part of life in Japan. The Japanese are never happier than when they can dress up in traditional clothes and eat fried noodles and crepes.
Living in a largely agricultural area, I was asked to participate in the local mikoshi festival. Mikoshi are large portable Shinto shrines, each weighing roughly a 1000kg. The shrines are supported by two or four large beams and are carried to a blessing site by about a dozen people, usually wearing a kind of loincloth similar to the ones used by Sumo wrestlers.
Each mikoshi is supposed to hold a god, generally of some kind of natural persuasion, like rocks, rivers, mountains or trees. However, it’s not just a case of carrying the mikoshi down to the site (a river in this case). That would be far too simply and not nearly painful enough for the Japanese.
No, it appears that these gods are in fact lazy little things who are constantly falling asleep on the job. Personally, I can understand this. Being god of a rock doesn’t seem to be quite as fun as say, being Thor, God of Thunder or Dionysus, God of Wine and Orgies. Basically, as god of rocks, there wouldn’t be much else to do except sleep and occasionally sediment.
So, in order for the god to realise he is being honoured, the Japanese feel it is necessary to bounce the mikoshi up and down to wake him up. This is done to the cry of, “Washoi, washoi!” which is basically translates to, “Go! Go!”
There aren’t too many times in Japan when I’ve cursed being taller than the locals. Oh, I might get frustrated occasionally when I’m trying to buy shoes or I smack my head on a low door, but generally being a head taller than everyone else has its advantages. Unfortunately, this was one of the times when it didn’t.
Basically, my shoulders were a couple of inches higher than everyone else’s. So, everytime the mikoshi was brought down, I managed to bear the full brunt of the impact before it hit everyone else.
Also, while not personally a religious man, I still wonder about the validity of this idea. I mean, imagine you’re a god of rocks or a river or something. You’ve just had a heavy day of diverting eddies, or sitting around feeling heavy, and you’re looking forward to a nice nap. You start drifting off and suddenly some bastards start shaking your house and shouting at you.
Are you going to wake up and bestow blessings on these people? Or are you going to start thinking it was about time for a rain of frogs or a flood of Shintoric proportions? It would be the god equivalent of your neighbour waking you up at 3am and asking to borrow your lawnmower.
Still, reservations aside, I agreed to participate on the proviso that I didn’t have to wear the loincloth.
Unfortunately for all concerned, I was outvoted…
The Cynical Traveller
Ah, music. “If music be the food of love, play on”. So said William Shakespeare, and he’s got a lot more readers than me, so there must be something in it.
Certainly, the Japanese are fond of music, in much the same way that a monkey is fond of throwing faeces. They do it and they love it, but it can be painful for the audience. We are talking here of the country that gave the world karaoke. The fact that the world didn’t really want it, is besides the point.
Of course, I’m not one to talk. My own voice has been known to kill cockroaches at sixty paces; but at least I have the common decency, not to mention common sense, not to sing in public.
My original apartment in Japan was situated next to a bar that offered karaoke, and many was the night I was kept awake by the wail of the banshee next door. While the best opera singers are said to be able to break glass, the blokes singing next door could break a pewter mug.
Which is why it is so astounding that when the Japanese assemble for a chorus, the result is actually well worth listening to. My only explanation for this is that most Japanese are only truly happy when doing the same thing as a hundred other people.
My junior high school recently held its ongakusai, or chorus competition.
For the three weeks leading up to the competition, I couldn’t walk through the corridors without hearing stirring renditions of various Japanese songs, and one rather disturbing version of Wham’s “Last Christmas”, which I cruelly dubbed “Rast Kurisumasu”.
I know; I’m a bastard.
The disadvantage of all that practice is, of course, that by the time the actual competition rolled around, I was thoroughly sick of the songs and sat in the audience yelling, “Play ‘smoke on the water!’”
Still, they’re a talented little bunch of angels and all in all the day wasn’t too painful.
Unfortunately I had also nominated myself to attend a recital by one of my elementary school students the next day.
The recital was a performance of traditional instruments. My student was playing a shamisen, a kind of three stringed Japanese guitar, all three of which appear to be A flat. Now, imagine what Jimmy Hendrix would have been capable of if his guitar had had only 3 strings.
Other instruments being used were the koto ( a kind of chinese harp) and Japanese wooden flutes. There were also a few old ladies singing in a particularly whiney fashion.
Individually, all these sounds are awful, but when put together, they somehow combine to make a not entirely unpleasant sound. It’s rather like popcorn.
You’d never eat plain popcorn, plain butter or plain salt. But put together and they taste okay.
So, that was my popcorn weekend.
The Cynical Traveller
Yabusame is the Japanese art of horseback archery. Myself and my friend from the Tokyo Times, decided to make a little excursion to the small village of Moroyama to see what all the fuss is about.
Despite Moroyama having a population of roughly 7, hundreds of people turned up to the festival, simply for the exciting prospect of actually seeing a live animal. To give you some kind of idea of the scarcity of animals in Japan, I’m going to completely plagiarise a story from a friend of mine.
This man, let’s call him Mr X, is married to a lovely young Japanese lady (whom I hope never reads this). Mr and Mrs X went back to Mr X’s home country of England.
When they saw some cows in a paddock, Mrs X was rather fascinated. Mr X asked her, “Haven’t you ever seen a cow before?” To which Mrs X replied, to the amusement of all, “Yes, in a zoo.”
Animals really are that scarce around here. So, it’s not surprising that people are willing to travel three hours to look at a horse. At least, one that’s not on a plate in a restaurant.
Moroyama lies on the charming, but rather inconvenient, Hachiko train line. Being a predominantly rural line, Hachiko trains leave once an hour in the mornings, have only two carriages and are apparently pulled by a team of oxen.
Still, we managed to leave on time and catch all our connections, only to arrive in town and be informed that lunch had just started and the yabusame would resume in 3 hours.
However, that gave us time to grab some lunch. We passed the usual stalls selling fried noodles, goldfish, and what my friend insisted were chocolate coated sausages. There were also a couple of stalls selling toy guns.
Let me tell you, we’re not talking about little plastic guns here, with blinking lights and semi realistic rattling sounds. Rather, it’s life sized sniper rifles, capable of shooting plastic balls up to a distance of 130 feet and punching through walls (albeit Japanese paper walls). Generally, they looked more imposing than the weapons carried by the Japanese GSDF into Iraq.
It’s an extremely dangerous and irresponsible toy in the hands of either an adult or a kid. Naturally, I was dying to buy one.
Being so early, we were able to get prime seats, right up the front.
This was my second yabusame festival and it turned out to be rather a disappointment. The previous festival was two years ago. That year, there were only two horses and one of them panicked, threw its rider and galloped off down the main street of the town.
Obviously I was hoping for a rather better show this year. Well, it must have been a bumper year for Moroyama, because this year they were able to afford three horses. There were also three riders; one was very good, one could ride but not shoot, and one who should probably just stick to baseball.
Three riders should have meant that there was enough action to keep us entertained. However, rather than send them down one at a time, they simply all thundered down in a row; the worst rider often cannoning into the back of the first two. Then you had to wait 15 minutes for the next bout.
Not that we got to see much of the event anyway, because for ninety percent of the competition our view was obscured by people leaning over to take photos. So much for those good seats!
The Cynical Traveller
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of an ekiden, the literal translation is “station race”, indicating that the participants run between train stations. Unfortunately, when asked to participate, I misunderstood the concept to be a “stationary race”, which seemed right up my alley, and hence I volunteered.
Strangely enough, despite the daily exercise of walking to the fridge and back, and repeated viewings of “Chariots of fire”, I found myself awaiting the race with a certain amount of trepidation.
My leg of the race was held in the local park, and I was gratified that the competitors at least represented a wide variety age groups; if not weight categories.
Now, my own build could be described as “Willowy”, if by “Willowy” you mean I weigh as much as a rather large tree. Generally, my competition was somewhat slenderer and more athletic. In fact, I could probably eat the equivalent of their combined body weight in hamburgers in a single sitting. However, as I was lining up next to both eight year old girls and ninety year old men with Zimmer frames, I felt it imperative that I at least attempt to do my country proud.
For the results, let’s turn to the following report from the Japan times:
The Cynical Traveller
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